CFL season set to kick off after unprecedented off-season

7 Jun 2024

TORONTO — The start of the regular season couldn't come at a better time for the CFL.

The 2024 campaign kicks off Thursday night in Winnipeg with the Blue Bombers hosting the Montreal Alouettes in a Grey Cup rematch on TSN.

Grey Cup MVP Cody Fajardo's 19-yard TD strike to Tyson Philpot, it's top Canadian, with 15 seconds remaining rallied the Als to a thrilling 28-24 championship victory at Tim Hortons Field.

Watch the Alouettes and Blue Bombers in the season opener LIVE on June 6 at 8:30 p.m. ET/ 5:30 p.m. PT on TSN1/3, and the TSN App. 

But it's been a rough couple of months for the league.

In April, it suspended retired defensive lineman Shawn Lemon indefinitely for betting on league games. Lemon reportedly wagered 70 euros (about $104 Canadian) on a two-game parlay, including one in which he played, in 2021 while with the Calgary Stampeders.

There was no evidence any contest was impacted by his wager.

Then last month, the CFL suspended Toronto quarterback Chad Kelly, the CFL's 2023 outstanding player, for both pre-season games and at least nine regular-season contests for violating its gender-based violence policy.

It followed an independent investigation into a lawsuit filed by a former strength-and-conditioning coach against Kelly for sexual harassment and the Argos for wrongful dismissal. Two days later, Kelly was on the field during Toronto's rookie camp although he wasn't in equipment and didn't practise.

Then the CFL Players' Association launched an appeal against the CFL for denying it access to the full report that led to Kelly's suspension. The Argos, Kelly's camp and the former coach's legal representatives all received an executive summary, not copies of the full 87-page report.

The CFLPA also received the summary and requested access to the report, which it said was denied by the CFL.

On May 14, Lemon reported to Montreal's camp after appealing his suspension. He'll be allowed to play until an independent arbitrator rules on the matter.

"I think the main focus is just to stay in the present moment," said Alouettes linebacker Darnell Sankey. "We really don't know much, we just know he's here now and we're happy to have him … the only thing we can do is just focus on the present."

Two days later, Kelly formally withdrew from Toronto's camp.

Lemon's situation took an interesting turn last week when the B.C. Lions signed American defensive lineman Demetrious Taylor. He spent most of 2022 on the Detroit Lions practice roster, dressing for one game before being released in May 2023.

But the NFL suspended Taylor indefinitely for betting on games during his rookie year. He was among five players reinstated from gambling suspensions by the league in April, although Taylor didn't sign with another club.

Unfortunately, the CFL's off-field issues did take away from what was a decent 2023 season. Scoring was up 18 per cent from 2021, with 50.8 points per game compared to 43.1. Sixty per cent of games were decided in the final three minutes, up from 51 per cent in 2021. There were 17 kick-return touchdowns in 2023, four more than in 2022 and more than twice as many as in 2021. Additionally, 18 different quarterbacks started and won a game last year.

And teams in the league's top three markets — B.C., Toronto and Montreal — all experienced positive returns. The Argos' game day revenue increased 41.1 per cent while the Alouettes were up 13.5 per cent and Lions had a 12.3 per cent boost.

All three clubs also experienced increases in the 25-to-54 demographic with B.C. at 51.8 per cent, Toronto at 42.5 per cent and Montreal at 18.3 per cent.

But with the 2024 CFL season set to begin, the emphasis now can return to the field and Montreal's attempt to win consecutive championships for the first time since 2009-10.

"We're not really concerning ourselves with the challenge of going back-to-back because there's going to be a lot of new faces in this that aren't going to go on back-to-back," Montreal head coach Jason Maas said. "Our end goal will never be not stated as a Grey Cup, that's a ninth Grey Cup for this franchise is what we're all looking for.

"But every single day the focus will be on us and the little things we can do to get better. I just want to have our team really focus on what we can control every single day."

Montreal will also chase a ninth straight victory. The Alouettes concluded the 2023 regular season with five consecutive wins, then earned playoff decisions over Hamilton and Toronto before capping their year with the Grey Cup decision.

Montreal's last regular-season loss was a 23-20 verdict against Toronto on Sept. 15.

On Friday night, Bo Levi Mitchell is scheduled to return to McMahon Stadium when the Hamilton Tiger-Cats visit the Calgary Stampeders. Mitchell, 34, played his first 10 CFL seasons in Alberta — winning two Grey Cups and two CFL outstanding player awards — before joining the Ticats in 2023.

Then on Saturday night, the new-look Edmonton Elks — led by veteran quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson — open at home to the Saskatchewan Roughriders under first-year head coach Corey Mace. That game will begin at 4 p.m. ET instead of 7 p.m. with the NHL Oilers opening the Stanley Cup final on the road versus the Florida Panthers at 8 p.m.

The opening week concludes Sunday night with Toronto hosting the B.C. Lions at BMO Field.

The Lions' home opener will be June 15 versus Calgary, with at least 50,000 spectators at B.C. Place Stadium. Curtis (50 Cent) Jackson will perform before the game.

B.C. Place will also be the site for the Grey Cup game Nov. 17 with the Jonas Brothers providing the halftime entertainment. Saskatchewan is the last CFL team to win a championship at home in 2013.

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